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XAVIER IN PERSON
by Carmen Castro de Zubiri, August, 1985
On the Occasion of the Homage to Xavier Zubiri, Buenos Aires, 1985
published in Hombre y Realidad, Homenaje a Xavier Zubiri, 1898-1983, edited by María Lucrecia Rovaletti, Ed. Universitaria de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, 1985, pp. 5-7
Translated by Thomas B. Fowler
This act would have been very moving to Xavier. When he wanted to show his deepest appreciation he said, "Thank you", and no more. He apologized for making use of a concise expression, alleging his Basque nature. But the tone and the gesture, and their personal expression, bore witness of his authentic feelings.
For my part I reiterate my gratefulness, and my support for this homage that to tell the truth he, on the other hand, would have considered absolutely undeserved. Not so I.
The fact is that Xavier was the humblest man that I ever saw. He was also the man of the most human smile imaginable. Beautiful was his smile when he opened up to pleasing people, when he requested the realization of those impossible things that for Xavier were as urgent as the air that he breathed. Naturally, most of those times were when books would arrive from God knows where. . . And the good thing is that a way was found so that they almost always arrived at the very moment when they were needed. Angels must have been the bearers of books for Xavier!
I emphasize Xavier's humility. He was as sure of not being dumb as of not being a genius. Nobody never dared to call him a genius to his face; they could readily see that it would have left him cold to be taken as a brilliant philosopher. So much so that his forehead was darkened by a frown before the possible appearance of the word. It was such an expressive forehead, full of truth and of light.
Xavier believed that he was useless for any thing other than illuminating ideas. And as he only had ideas available, it was ideas that he offered to philosophy...and to people.
His ideas were like searchlights that prodigiously illuminated obscure problems. For Xavier, to clearly see an existing problem was the primordial beginnings for every human activity, be it a creative activity, or simply a day-to-day activity which living requires. Many were those who went to him, and thanks to him saw clearly what was obscure or difficult in their problems, and the very point from which they could extract the necessary solution.
As for his philosophical-metaphysical-problems, he called them "knots." Knots that kept tormenting him tormented as long as they could not be untied-he never said that he untied them, but rather that they untied themselves-. I have already said that his humility was total.
And having reached this point, let me say that over the centuries few indeed have been those who have seen, with such a diaphanous light, the problems which metaphysical thinking offers in all of its many aspects. Much of Xavier's thought has been valid for metaphysics and for philosophy, as well as for many other sciences.
If Xavier were able to hear me publicly-for my part-elevate his creative thought to the heights which I believe that it attains he would ask me, when we were alone, once again, with his expression of a truthful man, with clear eyes of a shining intelligence, with an adolescent's look hints at the true person yet to be discovered. . .he would ask me if it seemed to me true that what he had just said, or dictated, or thought, was "good". And he would forcefully inquire, with his best smile tinged with incredulity and pleasure at the same time, if I were sure of what so excitedly I told him. It is truly incredible that Xavier would humbly consult someone ignorant in philosophy, theology, and in all the great fields of knowledge about the quality of his extraordinary creative work. Of course, I am completely faithful to his mental creation; but it comes to me more by feel than by way of knowing. And it has been a joy for me to be present at this creation, though I didn't always understand, because he told me early on that my mind is not philosophical. And that he correctly perceived. I admit that before Xavier's work I always feel like the tourists who are sensitive but not well-versed in art, when they contemplate Michaelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel. And besides the love and friendship I have always had and have with Xavier, there is admiration, respect and gratefulness. I was always aware of whom I was living with in full and happy coexistence.
I always admired Xavier, not just because of how surprising was the realization of his creative thinking, but for what, in human terms, in his personal life, this creation meant for him: an incredibly hard life.
He was demanding with himself in everything, from material things down to the least tangible item. Xavier's self-control and discipline were, so to speak, titanic. In his life he always renounced whatever might separate him, even for a brief time, from his intellectual task. And do not think that his reserve with respect to public life, so to speak, his concentration in himself, was due to the fact that he was an old ogre stuck in his own rut. That is not so, above all because he was not old even on the day of his death; nor was he ever an ogre, but always an extremely sociable person. Xavier was sympathy in person, the faithful friend, committed to friendship, the one who could not live without friends, and in this he was absolutely Aristotelian. For Xavier likewise friendship " is the most necessary thing in life." (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1155a4)
Xavier suffered much when the elaboration of his thought demanded that he forego visiting with of very dear and pleasing friends, and that he renounce a thousand attractive things for him, all of which would have occupied an unrecoverable amount of time in his life. He did not ignore, nor did he deceive himself about, the time-the rhythm-inexorably demanded by his creative work, exhausting and never easy, but for him absolutely irrenounceable. He maintained his work rhythm until the end of his life, when his health declined. Xavier did not allow himself breaks in his work, except when the work itself demanded them, when the effort already carried out had been excessive.
And the reason for this way of working is that Xavier-he himself always said it-was not a philosopher, nor a philosophy professor, but someone professed in philosophy [as in a religious order]. And his surrender to the creative-philosophic work, like the surrender of someone in a religious order to God, through their order, through their "religion", as St. Teresa, Xavier's good friend used to say, came before everything pleasant, but never before what was humanly necessary: to help a friend, or anyone in an urgent, difficult, or serious situation.
Sobriety in his material life. Xavier needed little, but he was extremely thankful and happy for what was not indispensable in his life, what life gave him as presents, as he said sometimes new friends, many things for him extremely pleasing. How happy he was when some annoyance was remedied! What a pleasure were all those little things that make life comfortable, and suffering less distressing! And what serenity he showed, and what a good face he always put on the difficult situations, remembered with sadness, in which life placed him, placed us. None left him bitter; a great lesson in the manliness of goodness he gave at all times.
Xavier's moral quality was really surprising.
He never moved away from the truth. He was ever faithful to her: "The truth will make you free", says the Gospel. And Xavier was the freest man, at least in the Europe of his time. When I said this to him from time to time, and marveled before the presence of a man truly free. . . "but at what cost?", would be his reply. And we laughed. But the cost paid for that truth which Christ offers was extremely high-witness the many serious problems which befell us, which thankfully we were able to survive. (It is proven: hunger disappears when one eats only every other meal.) Leaving aside the very difficult situations that were overcome-more important than being hungry-, the truth is that the most frequent of our small calamities was having to give up a certain book, as necessary for Xavier's work as it was inaccessible to us at the time. And the fact is that Xavier and the books are an important chapter in his long life. Xavier and his suitcases full of books. Xavier and the floor covered with books. Xavier and the books heaped in teetering piles. ("If nothing goes near it, the Leaning Tower of Pisa won't fall".) And all those books collected sometimes just because one line was needed, that one which bears the truth. Thus go the needs of the creator, imprescindable for the creation of philosophy so precise, clear and well-structured as a stellar constellation in the night-like a truly great symphony, a great friend, a lover of music, once said.
I fear that with just these few notes-and because I am not enough of a writer-that I have failed in my purpose: to suggest what Xavier was like in person, something which, naturally, cannot be gleaned from his works. But the reader of his books, if he has absorbed their creation, will come to know that their author was a person endowed with a powerful personality, with a language and style of his own, one which is clear, expressive, and appropriate to the originality of this thought. Xavier was blessed with an exceptional sentient intelligence, by nature creative, and amazingly cultivated, a being faithful to God in every instant of his life. It seems incredible, but it is true, that he began our life together working on the text of his essay "In Regard to the Problem of God." And it was my consolation after the [posthumous] preparation, done for him, of Man and God.
[Translator's note: Based on my own personal acquaintance with Zubiri, everything that Carmen says in this essay is true; Zubiri was a man who was both passionately committed to the pursuit of truth, and a very humble soul. All in all, a most remarkable person.--TF]